Adam Smith: the first psychologist of emotional intelligence?

Adam Smith is usually remembered as an economist, author of The Wealth Of Nations, and as the leading proponent of free market economics. I want to introduce you to a better Adam Smith, the one who had earlier written The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and who could justly be remembered as the first psychologist to study emotional intelligence.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments, first published in 1759, was a deep dive into moral behaviour, and explained how people led moral lives because of “sympathy”, an inborn tendency to imagine themselves in another person’s shoes. Sound familiar? Today we usually call it empathy, and it’s a fundamental part of modern theories of emotional intelligence.

Smith’s whole book develops this argument, and explores how this one deeply human ability can explain how we relate to one another, build strong social relationships, and even make moral judgments about right and wrong courses of action.

To those who have vaguely heard of The Wealth Of Nations, this seems highly inconsistent. How can one theory encompass both the free market and emotional intelligence? The simple version is this. Sympathy (empathy) is the limiter for selfishness, and conversely, selfishness is the limiter for empathy. Both are necessary, and we need to keep them in balance. Empathy and selfishness regulating each other

Smith’s theory is not enough for moral philosophers, because it’s more an explanation of the forces that influence how people choose to act, and not whether a given action is good or bad. If you want to make a moral choice, empathy won’t tell you what to do. But if you ignore it, you are leaving selfishness and injustice unregulated, and that leads to the breakdown of social relations. In many ways, Smith’s argument ran directly against utilitarian approaches to ethics, which aimed to remove empathy from moral decisions.

And this, perhaps, is why The Theory of Moral Sentiments is so important. Sympathy, and emotional intelligence, are real, useful daily tools we use to see other people’s point of view, and shape our everyday decisions about how to do the right thing. Unlimited selfishness leads to a lack of ethics and morality, and empathy is one of the key forces that limits it. Even Adam Smith knew that empathy was fundamental to good social behaviour, and that strengthening emotional intelligence, with good self-management, makes great business sense.

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Dr. Stuart Watt has a PhD in the psychology of social intelligence and develops AI technologies that use psychological insights into organizational processes to improve email practice.

He is CTO of Turalt, a Toronto-based AI company using feedback and analytic tools based on AI, psycholinguistics, and psychometrics to solve online miscommunication in business.

Image © gnominic used under Creative Commons Attribution license.